Oct 14, 2013

    Grad who's a rickshaw puller in Tokyo

    ASK any Japanese where you can get a glimpse of the Tokyo of the past and you are likely to be directed to Asakusa, an area in the city's north-eastern corner known for its temples, entertainment and rickshaws.

    Since early this year, Mr Hiroyuki Inami has been one of many men and women who work every day, resting only during heavy rain or a typhoon, to pull tourists on a rickshaw around the area. It is a demanding job, and not just physically.

    "Every day, you're approaching 20 to 30 groups of people, and only some of those will ride. Plus, the price isn't cheap, so the most difficult part is communicating that well," he said. Charges start at 1,500 yen (S$19) for a 10-minute ride.

    Mr Inami, who recently turned 25, didn't plan on becoming a rickshaw puller. He grew up in Tokyo and attended private schools before studying at Meiji University.

    "After I graduated, I got a job at a drug manufacturer. I did that for about 11/2 years, then I quit last summer," he said, explaining that he had decided to take a qualification examination to become a firefighter. "But, at the time that I quit my job, the exams had just finished."

    He said he came to Asakusa for fun, "and...I saw rickshaw pullers running by and it caught my attention". He called three companies, went for an interview the following day and began training immediately.

    Rickshaws are believed to have been invented in Japan, and the word rickshaw comes from the Japanese jinrikisha, which loosely translates to "human-powered car".

    Today, rickshaws are commonly seen only in tourist and geisha districts of cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.

    While rickshaw pulling was once considered a job for peasants, Mr Inami said the pullers in Asakusa are a diverse group.

    Some, like his boss, have been doing it for many years, while others, like Mr Inami, consider it to be a temporary job or just something to do while finishing their studies.

    "I wouldn't say there are many, but there are university graduates," Mr Inami said.

    "I think there are various motives, but I often hear people saying that they do it because it's a part of Japanese culture, and because it's cool."

    He said that on a typical day, he will get three or four customers. While he acknowledged that the selling part of the job is the most difficult, he said he still enjoys it: "I like talking to people. I can't speak much English, but I'll talk to them, and if they're in good spirits, curious about rickshaws and want to ride one, it's fine."